As Free as Corpses

My neighbor came by earlier this week. “I found some bullet shells on the road outside,” she said. “My husband heard some gunshots yesterday during his evening walk. We called the police but they still have no idea who it was.” My sister, who was taking a nap at the time, finally discovered the source of the racket that wakened her that evening. We thanked our neighbor for her concern, and after some conversation about family and our respective Christmas menus, she resumed her walk. The culprits, we later surmised, were probably a group of teenagers from another town. By harmlessly firing a few rounds into the open sky, they celebrated their rights as American citizens, while inconveniencing my sister in the process.

The Newtown massacre, which claimed twenty-six innocent lives this month, has reopened a wound in the American psyche. Although its tragedy is unspeakable, the Newtown shooting is only the latest part of a string of gun-related crimes in America that stretches back for decades, with no telling when the next incident might occur. Its timing also felt surreal and disconnected from the ongoing congressional saga over the “fiscal cliff,” yet the two issues are much more connected than they appear. Both reveal the caustic, binary nature of public dialogue today and the paralysis that inevitably creates. More fundamentally, both issues deal with the question of liberty. Advocates of gun ownership celebrate guns as one of the hallmarks of being free, proud Americans, to which I pose the question: how free is a dead child, or twenty dead children, for that matter?

The justification that gun ownership should be defended because it is part of the American heritage should be rejected prima facie. The fact that something exists in one’s history does not automatically provide a moral justification for its continuance, no more than slavery should be celebrated today since it is also part of the American heritage. Critics might accuse me of falsely equating slavery with gun ownership here, which is somewhat true, but the basic premise still holds. A heritage can be a good or nasty thing, and not everything in one’s history should be celebrated because it was already there.

Of course, the primary argument for gun ownership concerns liberty, not patriotism or heritage. The NRA, for instance, proclaims itself as the “foremost defender of Second Amendment rights.” There is no doubt that the right to own firearms is a right that, like any other right, enhances liberty. The more important question is how, and to what degree.

Consider the example of traffic laws. If we suddenly annulled all traffic laws tomorrow, so that drivers would have the freedom to drive in any manner they wished without fear of punishment, it is true that everyone’s liberty would increase. But it would also be true that the number of accidents would increase inordinately, to an extent that people might avoid the roads completely for fear of losing their lives. This, paradoxically, is the consequence of more liberty – less freedom. By annulling all traffic laws so that anyone can drive like a scene from Grand Theft Auto, no one uses the roads. Conversely, by adhering to traffic laws, we are free to use the roads without too much fear that the person next to me will swerve into my path, or speed at an intersection. I constrain myself to the law so that I am free to pursue my goals elsewhere. The consequence of sound laws, therefore, is not even a trade-off between one’s freedom and other goals; it is forfeiting lesser liberties to attain greater freedoms.

I admit this is an argument by analogy, so its translation to the issue of gun ownership is imperfect. However, the same principle applies. Because of the Second Amendment, Americans are freer everywhere because they have the right to purchase firearms. At the same time, they are also less free because they must now fear for the lives of their children.* In the context of the Newtown massacre, it would seem that freedom was gained as Adam Lanza, along with the thousands of Americans who purchased Bushmaster .223 rifles, but freedom was also lost as twenty-seven Americans died on 14 December. This was even more so for the children who were killed, whose dreams were fettered to their tiny corpses.

But perhaps my arguments are misplaced. The Second Amendment exists not as a right that enhances freedom in itself, but as a right to self-defense against those who also have guns. Americans should never belittle the possibility of a Soviet or North Korean invasion, or the occasional marauding horde from Canada. However, realistically speaking, this will probably refer to the right to defend ourselves against none other than ourselves. Of course, in the history of the United States, the sacrifice of lives in order to gain freedom, such as the American Revolution, has always been celebrated as a noteworthy thing. Yet dying for the right to possibly get shot at a shopping mall or kindergarten – there is something deeply perverse about this logic, a circularity that resembles madness.

Unfortunately, the problem extends beyond the realm of abstraction into our fallen existence. Although I reject gun ownership on philosophical grounds, I am inclined to concede on practical terms. As things currently stand, forty-seven percent of American households have firearms. This means that banning the sale of firearms will do nothing because of massive number of weapons already in circulation. Any kind of gun regulation only makes sense if the existing pool of guns are confiscated, which will happen as soon as the world ends. This leaves us with two Nash equilibriums: either everyone has guns (or would be a fool to do so otherwise), or everyone has no guns, and the NRA are actually a legitimate organization.

The second confounding problem is the inane level of public dialogue and a seeming inability to think outside of binary categories, particularly on the Internet. “It’s not the guns,” someone writes, “But the loss of old-fashioned values.” Cue thunderous applause (or thousands of Facebook likes) from the right. “It’s not really the guns, it’s mental health.” Cue similar applause from the center.** “It’s not any of the above, but the NRA and the gun culture it perpetuates.” Cue applause from the left.  But a question remains unasked: if guns and mental health are both problems for America, can’t both be addressed simultaneously? Why are we being forced to choose? Is this the triumph of American freedom: the freedom to choose one of several options, even when all are true and needed?

A final note concerning those who argue that guns have no causal relation to death and violence. Even if I cannot prove, causally, that a lack of gun control leads to greater murder rates, there is no doubt that the two are heavily correlated. More critically, a high correlation in this case should provide a sufficient basis for regulation because it would reduce the loss of lives. Imagine if Lanza lived in a gun-free America. To accomplish the massacre, Lanza would either have to obtain firearms illegally, or conduct his mass killings in a different way, such as constructing a home-made bomb. Both are certainly possible in a counterfactual world, but they would also be a lot harder. This may not seem like a great deal when it concerns a single case, but given that more than ten-thousand Americans are murdered by guns every year, making homicide much harder will inevitably lead to its reduction.***

I don’t want to fall into the trap of offering a magic bullet solution, because it does not exist.**** We are inexorably being pulled into the first Nash equilibrium of widespread gun ownership, a black hole of an outcome that gives Americans more liberty but less freedom.

Meanwhile, in the event that those teenagers come by again, I might make that trip to Wal-Mart to purchase a rifle of my own. Along with the festive glow of Christmas lights everywhere, I will drive home, feeling free and secure with gun-in-hand, thankful for the liberties of this land.

*Even if we take the NRA’s proposal seriously, employing hundreds and thousands of armed officers will not be a costless expense. The last thing municipal authorities want is another form of expenditure, which through increased taxes will reduce people’s freedoms. Buy why am I taking the NRA seriously again?

**I am not sure if people who take this position are assigned to the correct political map here, but I needed this to fit in my sentence pattern so there.

***To disprove this argument, you will need to prove that in the 11,101 cases of homicide  committed in 2011, for example, all these murders would have been accomplished anyway without the use of firearms. A counterfactual comparison with other countries shows this is a ludicrous claim. Guns make killing a lot easier, and even if removing them might not reduce the murderous intent in a country, it will lower the murder rate.

****You can, however, purchase real bullets at your nearest Wal-Mart.


My last memory of Singapore consisted of Darren Chew, Yao Wen and Bryan Loke holding a boombox that played the theme from “Golden Power”, walking solemnly behind me as I headed for departure to the U.S. The scene is still vivid in my mind, though bizzare and dreamlike, as any scene involving Darren Chew ought to be. It was a send-off that befitted an emperor – one that I hardly deserved. From my room in Cambridge I had awaited the moment of coming home for some time now, wondering if the same thing would be repeated when I got back in December, though in reverse sequence.

It was, of course, entirely unreasonable for me to expect something like that. But the gathering of people that day embodied the Singapore I remembered, and the Singapore I hoped to return to. As I landed at Changi though, it took me some time to realize that I was not returning to life exactly as I had remembered in 2010, frozen and unperturbed by time. I was returning to real life, thirty months later.

In reality I should have little to feel wistful about. Most, if not all, of my friendshsips remain, though some adjustments were to be made. People changed. During earlier years most of my childhood and teenage friends had a confidence and easiness about them, a defiance towards life. But it seemed life proved larger, more savage. Where defiance once existed, caution took its place; where carefreeness was, now an ambition to seize life and to master it, even if it meant following everyone else. As the local the proverb goes, Gary finally grew up.

Adjusting also involved a geographical dimension. From living at Balmoral Road, this was my first time staying at the new house in Pasir Ris. It’s a pleasant, quiet location, though I do miss the short commutes and the sound of paws on the door. This winter, I realized, was also the first time I’ve been back to Singapore without my parents around. Like true adults, my siblings and I planned the Christmas meal together without the usual behest of my mother. It was a lovely meal, though a strange feeling lingered at the end. At first I assumed it came from eating too much of my brother’s pasta, though I later realized it came from within myself, a voice that said:

“I am my own man now”

So maybe that’s been the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make yet. Not the difference in friendships, or getting re-accustomed to a new home, but having to come to terms with a changed self.

It’s not really that I’ve come back to a different Singapore, but a different me has come back to the same place.

Alive Once More

It’s really been a while since I’ve written anything here, so apologies for the long absence. During the semester my writing energies are often spent on writing pieces for the HPR or finishing papers, so I’ve had little time to pay attention to my website. Now that it’s winter recess, I’ll try and write a bit more.

There’s going to be one significant change to this website though. I’ve looked at the categories and tags I’ve used over the years – they’re incredibly inane and somewhat arbitrary. I have tags that range from “theology and spirituality” to “dog”, and my categories have a lot of ove/lap. As a result, what I’ll do is just skip the process of adding tags/categories altogether, and just write. If you want to search a previous post, use the search bar and type the appropriate keyword. Don’t object: we live in a postmodern age, so get with the program.

England’s Sleep

I visited the Imperial War Museum today, which is now my favorite museum of all time. Following that, in order to saturate my day with the motif of war, I caught Journey’s End showing at the Duke of York Theatre. All this really made me recall Orwell’s prescient words, written in 1938:

Down here it was still the England I had known in childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wildflowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and mediate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal Weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs. (George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia)

Idealism Undone

“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Twenty-two is a wonderful age – I’m not going deny it. It’s an age where you’re still young enough to try new things and make mistakes; but at the same time, you’re also old enough to make decisions for yourself. And, if you’re still in school like me, it’s also a ripe age to ask the question: What is the purpose of my life, and where do I go from here?

It’s no surprise then, that for most like myself, twenty-two becomes an age of idealism. The problems of the world don’t appear burdensome or intractable – in fact, they might hardly considered problems at all. Instead, they are regarded as great causes for humanity to rally around: global concerns seeking global solutions. And I use the word “global” twice here with grim intent. Especially at places like Harvard, I find, if you attach the word “global” behind any other noun, it immediately gains a sense of worth: global health, global warming, global missions, global hunger, global education, global citizens.

I do not want to belittle any of these great causes, for they address concerns that are urgent and consequences are dire. After all, much good has been accomplished by international organizations like the United Nations and the individuals that compose them. Yet, at the same time, I realize that many of them are like Dostoyevsky’s doctor. I say this not as a detached observer, but because with some self-reflection, I find that I am among their number.

An idealist isn’t one who is attracted to great causes. If mankind had no visionaries, it would perish. Rather, an idealist is Dostoyevsky’s doctor: one who loves humanity but despises people. An idealist is one who is able to explain, with great flourish, the many needs of the world – AIDS, reforming our education system, solving the budget crisis – but has no love for his neighbor, and is at peace with the fact. He is moved by stories of children by injustice, but does not know their names, nor bothers to learn them.

For this reason, idealists cease to become idealists when a certain age is reached. They prefer to embrace other names: realist, pragmatic, or cynic. For any cause that does not value persons or remember names is no cause at all; and unable to sustain itself, the illusion falls apart. Idealism inevitably slides into indifference.

When Jesus approached someone, He never said: “Come, let us end poverty together,” or, “Let us discuss strategies for Christian ministry.” Rather, he addressed them lovingly, heard their stories and served their needs. He sat with them, laughed with them, ate with them, wept with them. And almost always, Jesus would address them by their names.

As our Lord has done, let us do likewise. We must love people first – humanity will come naturally afterwards.

A Fresher, Brighter Lotus Flower?

Not to compare apples with oranges here, but Merill Garbus’ latest single and MV reminds me vaguely of Radiohead’s Lotus Flower –  idiosyncratic dancing, layered rhythms – except its far more awesome (though credit to Yorke for the best hat ever).

Aggregate Supply/Demand are the Arms of Death

While looking at the SR AD/AS curves, I suddenly thought of this comparison.


Kid B

The two people I admire the most (after the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost) look remarkably similar.


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